We woke to the mountains, the three of us lying on blankets and rugs in the back of a Mini Traveller. We loved the wooden trim and putt-putt of the little engine.
We had all fallen asleep at different times during the night, all stating to be the last to drop off. Our parents knew whose claim stood the test, for they were on driving duty, swapping places every two hours, motoring on through day and night.
Twenty-four hours from Hampshire to Invergordon.
We always went the same way. Hence, even as little children, we knew the milestones we would pass. And chief amongst them was coming up soon. I got ready to ask the question as we bent around the corners of Inverness-shire and made our way north, always north for that was where we were headed.
“Daddy, why are those fishing boats rotting on the shore of Loch Ness?”
“The fishermen were eaten by the monster.”
“No, really, why?” The tease had only worked the first time yet was repeated in father-like fashion on every occasion.
And then he would answer truthfully.
“They left for the war and did not come back.”
“Didn’t someone else want the boats?”
“Not enough came back.”
Donald MacIntosh had often been in the water but never like this. He had swum from the mainland to the Black Isle and across the width of Loch Ness. It was swimming that had introduced him to his wife-to-be; not a race gala at which he could show off his prowess but a yacht capsizing off Invergordon. Being part of the lifeboat crew, he had participated in the rescue of the family on holiday from Edinburgh.
“Is that everyone?” said the captain of the rescue boat. The father and mother looked around the huddled figures, counting them and then recounting.
“Elsie’s missing. Where’s Elsie?” They looked desperately across the darkening water, back to the yacht that bobbed upside-down.
“She was with me in the water!” Rory cried. “I thought she was by my side.”
“I see her,” Donald shouted before standing to dive from the side of the boat. It was two-hundred yards in a fierce storm but only a hundred back for the boat turned and battled its way back towards the rescue scene.
They were married three months later on September 2nd1939; the day after Hitler invaded Poland and the day before Great Britain declared war on Germany.
“I’ll join the navy,” Donald had said. “I’ve got to do something.”
The Royal Navy had a way of keeping the volunteers apart. They messed together, worked together and faced the same danger. Yet the career seamen were a notch above the volunteers. Petty Officer Johns delighted in this distinction and Able Seaman MacIntosh’s life was miserable as a result. Defaulters’ parades ate into his shore leave but at least the decks of HMS Bastion shone like silver in sunshine.
Until the torpedo hit and turned the decks to crimson.
“Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” came the cry from the bridge. Most could get to the lifeboats but a small working party was stuck at the bows where the great gun was torn to a ragged mess and blocked the way.
“Help!” came their pitiful cries, somehow surviving against the crash of the waves and the metallic grind of steel on steel as decks and hulls and machinery collided. Donald was in the last boat as it went over the side, clawing at an injured sailor to hoist him aboard. “Help!” came the cry, the voice he knew well, the voice that had tormented him for months. “Help, for the love of God, help me!”
“Can’t we rescue them, sir?”
“The boat is overloaded as it is,” cried the lieutenant, who wore a jagged cut from right eye to left chin, blood flinging in droplets as he swung to face Donald. “We have to look after the wounded as a priority.” He held up his hand to show Donald the boat, saw for the first time his three missing fingers and fainted, slumping like a corpse into the belly of the boat.
“I’ll go back for them,” Donald said with a voice from outside his body. “If the boat is overloaded, it will be better without me.”
Three other able-bodied sailors came with him, together they formed the rescue party. One was lost overboard when the ship lurched to starboard, sinking several feet into the sea. His mate held him briefly until a gust of wind settled his fate. That left three, until the radar mast, just fitted the previous month, came down on top of one sailor, killing him instantly. It seemed to Donald that the man’s life, a ball of energy, escaped from the body, rolled down the listing deck and came to a halt by the upturned gun.
That was the gun that they needed to get past to reach the bows. They made it minutes before HMS Bastion slid into the sea, seeking the depths. There was only Petty Officer Johns alive.
“Thank you!” was mouthed but the storm and the metal-on-metal drowned all other sound.
Donald looked for something to make a raft. There was a wooden hatch cover just large enough for three but it would not come away. He grabbed a piece of broken pipe and levered it off, snapping the hatch in two and splintering the remaining part. What was left would provide a platform for two only. At least Donald was a strong swimmer.
“Over it goes, time it right.” They flung the hatch over the bows as the boat dipped further. “Jump!” he cried into a sudden lull before the storm picked up again. Donald waited a split second to ensure the other two jumped into the water. They said afterwards that the split second made all the difference. The bow rose again, the never-ending rhythm of the sea, snapping both Donald’s legs in two as he jumped after his comrades.
It was cold in the water as the sea soaked into his broken legs and wiped out the pain. Donald struck out with his arms but his body would not respond. Petty Officer Johns on his raft had just picked up the other of the rescue party. He struggled to paddle the raft with his arms, just as Donald struggled to reach the raft. Their eyes met as Donald’s head followed his broken body down.
“I misjudged you, man,” Johns’ eyes seemed to say but he never knew if the message got across the stretch of sea between them for they were misted in tears.
Chief Petty Officer Johns survived the war, was decorated twice for bravery and was known for his strong leadership and for bringing together the volunteers with the regulars. He did not marry until long after the war and was in his fifties when his first and only child was born.
“We will call him Donald MacIntosh Johns, if it pleases you, wife dear,” he said before the Christening. “In memory of…” She looked across and saw his eyes misted over.
“Of course, my dear,” she replied. There was no storm between them, that day or this, for young Donald was with them and no widening gap of sea between.
Elsie came to see Donald’s boat the day she got news of his death. She leaned against its beached side and wept for her loss. Already it looked like it needed some care but she knew nothing about boats. She left the Highlands at the end of the week and went back to Edinburgh, to her family. From there she went to London and worked as a secretary for an admiral. Long after the war, thinking she would never marry again, she met a kind-hearted man who had retired from the navy with two medals to his name. She became Elsie Johns at a small wedding ceremony in Hastings where they lived by the sea. They had one son, the delightful boy called Donald, who loved, above all else, to swim and fish.
My father proudly announced that we had made the journey in a record twenty-three hours and twenty minutes. I had not noticed the last hour from the rotting fishing boats on the shore of Loch Ness.